Geologist won world renown for theory on Nova Scotia


Geologist won world renown for theory on Nova Scotia
Believed province was once joined to Morocco


The National Post
April 25, 2000

Paul Schenk, who has died aged 63, was a dedicated and inspired teacher and geologist who came to international attention in the 1970's with a paper that argued that Nova Scotia and Morocco were once joined. Professor Schenk was a proponent of the theory of continental drift, or plate tectonics, which holds that the continents were at one time joined together but broke apart and, over millions of years, drifted to their present positions.

The theory was first advanced in Europe in the 1920's but was not generally recognized, particularly by North American geologists, until the 1960's when the renowned Canadian geophysicist John Tuzo Wilson became a key researcher in the field and brought it wider acceptance.

Prof. Schenk contributed to the debate with a paper, 'Southeastern Atlantic Canada, Northwestern Africa, and Continental Drift, which he published in 1971. Provocative for its time, it was regarded as a benchmark publication, which Prof. Schenk followed up with several others that provided evidence that Atlantic Canada had once been joined to North Africa.

Paul Schenk did part of his research on an 18-month trip around the world in a Volkswagen camper, starting in 1969, with his wife and two young daughters. On a sabbatical from Dahousie University in Halifax, he had received a senior research fellowship from the National Research Council to study the geological relationship of southeastern Atlantic Canada and northwestern Africa.

Paul Schenk and his family traveled through all five continents without mishap - except for a sprained shoulder, the consequence of a surfing stopover in Australia.

Paul Edward Schenk was born in Stratford, Ont., on Feb. 26, 1937. the son of a men's clothing salesman. He graduated with an honours bachelor of science in geology from the University of Western Ontario in London, Ontario, before going on to the University of Wisconsin, renowned for its geology program, to earn a Master's and a doctorate. He declined job offers in the United States to return to Canada, where he became an assistant professor at Dalhousie.

For the rest of his career, Paul Schenk rose through the academic and administrative ranks. He served as chairman of the geology department, associate chairman of the university and professor at the Centre for Marine Geology.

He also held the Carnegie Chair of Geology in the renamed Department of Earth Sciences.

In the mid-1980's, together with colleagues from the Royal Ontario Museum and the University of Toronto, Prof. Schenk began to concentrate on the 300-million-year-old hydrothermal vent and seep systems in Atlantic Canada. These developed along faults and cracks in the ancient ocean floor where heated water spewed out from inside the Earth's crust.

Over millions of years these vents and seep systems have created unique ecological environments that sustain unusual species such as large tubeworms, yellow mussels and various types of arthropods. All of these animals live on bacteria that use chemosynthesis to produce energy from dissolved hydrogen sulfide. Some scientists believe that life itself may have developed in these environments. Modern vents were discovered in the 1970s in the Galapagos Rift, off the Galapagos Islands. Subsequently, geologists have found them in the ancient rock record in several places, including Atlantic Canada. In 1990, with his Toronto colleagues, Prof. Schenk published a paper in the prestigious journal Nature on one of the best preserved vent systems in the world, in western Newfoundland.

Paul Schenk was a consummate academic scientist. He carried the enthusiasm for his work into the classroom and was known to carry pounds and pounds of rock and hundreds of 35mm slides into an undergraduate classroom to support his lectures. Even after 30 years of teaching, he routinely tore up his lecture notes and started anew in order to keep them fresh.


An enthusiastic hiker, athlete and sailor, he completed the Halifax marathon in the early 1980's, trekked up Mount Everest from the Nepal side and for years sailed his beloved Nonsuch. When his daughters took up the violin in elementary school, he became interested as well; in time he was proficient enough that he and his wife, who played the cello, formed a quartet with two friends and regularly played Baroque music, mainly Bach. He loved dogs and was fond of his two Airedales, Cabot and Classy.

Some three and a half years ago Paul Schenk was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or Lou Gehrig's disease. He took early retirement, but continued to work on research papers until shortly before his death; at least three of them will be published posthumously. He died of respiratory complications.

Paul Schenk married Margot Hurd in 1960. She and their two daughters, Margaret and Catherine, survive him.

Peter Rehak, National Post